How to Read Basic Music Notes

By Cindy Day
Learning to read music is much like learning to read a different language.

A sheet of music may look like mysterious lines, dots and squiggles to the uninitiated. However, learning to read music is no different from learning to read another language. The notes themselves communicate pitch and rhythm, while other notations on the page give directions for expression and intensity. To learn to read music, begin with music written for beginners.

The Musical Staff

The groups of five horizontal lines are called the staff.

Look for a set of five horizontal lines. This is called a staff. Notes are placed on the lines or in the spaces in between the lines. The notes that sit on the top lines of the staff will be higher in pitch than the notes that sit on the bottom lines. The staff is also divided with vertical lines, and everything written between two vertical lines is called a measure. What is written at the beginning of a song's staff communicates important information to the musician.

The treble clef is the most commonly used. Music for higher-pitched instruments—or for all voices except bass and baritone—most often uses the treble clef.

Look for a symbol on the left side of each musical staff. Most music today is written with a treble clef or a bass clef. The treble clef also is called the G-clef. The bass clef, which resembles a backwards letter C with two dots on its right, is called the F-clef. The notes written on a staff will be higher or lower, depending on which clef is used. Music written for a keyboard will have two staff lines connected with vertical lines on the right and left sides of the page, the top line with a treble clef and the bottom line with a bass clef. Because keyboards are arranged with the lowest notes on the left and the highest notes on the right, the right hand usually plays the treble clef line, and the left hand plays the bass clef line.

In addition to the key signature at the beginning of the staff, sometimes sharps and flats are written next to individual notes.

Look for the key signature. This will be expressed with symbols called sharps and flats. Sharps look like the number symbol, and flats look like the letter "b." If there is no sharp or flat at the beginning of the staff, the music is written in the key of C. To keep things simple, beginners learning to read music usually start with music written in the key of C, meaning no sharps or flats.

The time signature at the beginning of the staff looks like a fraction.

Look for the time signature at the beginning of a song. This is often expressed by one number over another, although standard time can be written instead with a big C. The time signature indicates how many beats—or counts—are in each measure. Standard time is 4/4 time. Another time signature frequently used is 3/4, such as in a waltz.

Notes on a Treble Clef Staff

The notes written on the treble clef line of the staff are usually played with the right hand on a keyboard.

Begin with music that has no sharps or flats written in the key signature when you are first learning. This means the music is written in the key of C. This key usually is easy to sing, as well as being easier than other keys to read.

Every note tells the musician what pitch to play or sing, and how long to play or sing it.

Find the first note on the staff with the treble clef. Written music, like written English, starts at the top left of a page and moves right. When you reach the end of one line, you start again at the left of the line below, just as if you were reading lines on the page of a book.

The first note on this line of music is a Middle C.

Determine the pitch of the first note by looking at which line or lines of the staff the note sits on or between. There are seven basic notes: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. One set of eight notes, starting and ending on the same letter, is called an octave. The key of C starts with C, so an octave in the key of C is C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C. Notes sitting on the lines are—starting at the bottom of the staff—E, G, B, D and F. Notes sitting between the lines are—again starting at the bottom—F, A, C and E. If there is a note just underneath the bottom line of the staff, that is a D. The C that is one step lower than that, with a single line through the note, is called Middle C. Notes can be written lower yet, with lines drawn through the notes to indicate how far beneath the staff lines they are. But notes are seldom written on the treble clef much lower than the G below Middle C.

High notes are written above the lines of a staff.

Keep in mind that high notes can also be written above the staff line. A note sitting on top of the very top line on a treble clef staff is a high G. Other high notes can be written with lines drawn through the note to indicate how far above the staff lines they actually are.

Keyboards have black keys in groups of two and three. The key immediately left of a group of two black keys is a C.

Find the first note on a keyboard. You can determine which key on a keyboard is Middle C by looking for a set of two black keys. Every white key immediately to the left of two black keys is a C. The next white key will be a D, then E, and so forth until you get to C again. The C key immediately to the left of the two black keys nearest the center of your keyboard is Middle C. Once you locate Middle C on a keyboard, you will be able to find the key that matches the note on your music. Notes written without sharps or flats are the white keys.

Continue to match the subsequent notes with keys on the keyboard. It will seem tedious at first, but keep in mind that you are learning to read a new language. With practice it becomes much easier, and you will be able to move on to more difficult music.

Notes on a Bass Clef Staff

Many notes can be played at once, with two hands and ten fingers.

Look for the staff below the treble clef. This staff usually is written in bass clef. These notes are played simultaneously with the notes written directly above them on the treble clef staff. On a keyboard, the notes on the bass clef are usually played with the left hand.

Keys lowest in pitch are on the far left side of a keyboard and move up in pitch with every key to the right.

Find the first note and determine its pitch. The notes sitting on the lines on a bass clef staff are—starting at the bottom—G, B, D, F and A. The notes between the lines—again starting at the bottom—are A, C, E and G. As was the case for the treble clef, very low notes can be written below the five staff lines and higher notes might be written above the staff lines. On a bass clef staff, Middle C is written above the staff with a single line drawn through the note. All of the notes written on the five bass clef staff lines are to the left of Middle C. That is, they are all lower in pitch than Middle C.

Reading a treble clef staff and a bass clef staff simultaneously takes practice.

Continue to match the notes on the music to the keys on the keyboard, just as you did for the treble clef line. Then try playing the notes on the treble clef line at the same time as you play the notes written on the bass clef line.

Rhythm and Rests

A single black note with a simple, flagless stem is a quarter note.

Notice that some notes have stems attached to them. Others have flags on the staffs. Still others have no stems and are hollow. These differences tell the musician how long to hold that note. A black note with a plain stem (going either up or down) is called a quarter note. In standard time—indicated either with a big C or a 4/4 notation in the time signature—there are four quarter notes to every measure. That means that a quarter note has one beat.

A song's rhythm is just as important as its melody.

Look for other notes. If you find one that is hollow but has a stem, that is a half note. The half note is held twice as long as a quarter note, meaning for two counts. If you find a hollow note that has no stem at all, that is a whole note. A whole note is held for four counts. A quarter note with a single flag is an eighth note, held only for a half count. You'll learn more as you progress in your music studies.

Look for other marks on the staff. If they don't look like notes, they're probably rests. A bold line under the fourth line on the staff is a whole rest, which is a four-count rest. A bold line sitting on the third line on the staff is a half rest, which is a two-count rest. A squiggly line is a one-count rest. And, yes, there are more still.

Tip

It takes time and patience to learn to read music. Practice in 15-minute sessions several times a day. Master one song before moving on to another.

Start with easy music written for beginners.

Warning

Don't underestimate the value of traditional music lessons, working one-on-one with a traditional music teacher. People have been learning to read music for generations with this centuries-old, tried-and-true method.

About the Author

Cindy Day has been writing and editing since 1977. She was an editor for "Moody Monthly" magazine, a reporter for the "South Bend Tribune" and has contributed to "Advertising Age" and "Notre Dame Magazine." Day has a Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.